Friday, January 13, 2006

Thailand: Return of People Power Through e-Democracy

It seems a very long time since we last saw the gathering of 100,000 people in Bangkok exercising their democratic rights of freedom of expression. The "Black May" of 1992, when the middle class led people's power against the return of military regime and resulted to full democracy in Thailand might be the last one. The incident is also recognized as "hand phone democracy".

The phenomenon of democracy through technology in Thailand has been repeated once again since "Thailand Weekly" ( Muang Thai Raay Saab Dah), the news talk program had been terminated from Channel 9 last mid-September. Besides, it seems to show the consequence and development of "hand phone democracy", which is now becoming "e-democracy".

The program, which is hosted by Sondhi Limthongkul and Sarocha Phorn-udomsak has been acclaimed by their fans as the most intensive news-talk show of the country at present. Democracy voices have been exercised through SMS, which were expressions of the audiences' opinions while the program was on-air. The deeper and stronger the criticisms of Sondhi on Thaksin's government, the greater the participation of listeners become. At the same time, broadcasting on Thailand weekly is also weekly outcome of crystallized information from their e-newspaper called The Manager. It has now become the most popular news website that gets 2,000,000 clicks per day.

Sondhi has moved his program outdoor by conducting it at Thammasat University and currently at Lumpini Park , which is located in the heart of business district of Thailand. At first it gathered 1,000 to 50,000 audiences. These days the audience numbers to 100,000 that include both old and new fans. However, excluded are those audiences who watch the program through ASTV, another media channel provided by The Manager, which could be seen through the local cable TV network in different provinces.

People have doubted and wanted to know what was really happening in Thai society under Thaksin's regime. The termination of Sondhi's program hit people's doubts of the current situation that blocks freedom to information of people and freedom to expression of media. The situations are getting worse since the interference operated gradually by Thai rak, a Thai party that has ruled the country.

The phenomenon mentioned above emerged along with other demonstrations, for instance, Electricity Authority of Thailand protests against the privatization and several farmer groups protest for the prices of their agricultural produce.

The pervading atmosphere of the lack of media freedom is choking people. Sondhi becomes the best selected choice for people to know the other side of the coin, most often the dark side of information that exposes the government's corruption, crony system, Thaksin's attempt for absolute power and so on.

Nevertheless, instead of answering questions or defending the criticisms of Sondhi, the government uses its dark powers by blocking broadcasts access to The Manager's Media network and forcing their bureaucrats to file suit against Sondhi.

Significantly, reports of Sondhi, a hard core journalist, shows the essence of structural journalism such as an innovation that focuses on analyzing the relationship between each social structures, and exposing the real face of money politics which is led by marketing method.

Therefore, the attempt of government to suppress people's access to information by blocking the broadcasts of The Manager's Network and other media will erode government's credibility. Rather than disempowering the media, people are made to believe that Sondhi's criticism to government is reliable after all.

Politically, people's reaction through participating in Sondhi's news talk show should not only be recognized as the gathering of e-democracy voices but also should be recognized as the start of quiet demands for power which emerged in an effort to institutionalize a more democratic polity. The atmosphere of democracy in Thailand 's civil society movement had disappeared voluntarily or involuntarily since 1997 financial crisis.

As long as government underestimate the power of the people and does not respect public opinions such as freedom of information and expression, the result would be negative and disastrous that will continue to haunt and challenge the stability of the Thaksin Administration.

Under the context of globalization the world has been connected by flows of information through present technologies. Through the electronic media, a platform is afforded to people to promote democracy and give voice to their aspirations.

Finally, Thaksin's government should realize that people's power has returned, it is therefore hard for him to use unfashionable means of political suppressions. Moreover, he should be reminded that the experiences of Thai people on his on political games and machinations is not convincing for him to lasts and remain in his government seat.

by Sittha Lertphaiboonsiri
Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya
December 14, 2005